We’ve all heard of climate change, and most of us probably think about it regularly. But what does climate change actually mean? If someone asked you to define it over dinner, what would you say?

Let’s break it down.

Put simply, climate change refers to a change in our temperature and weather patterns over time.

You might have also heard terms such as global warming or global heating. These are both references to climate change as temperatures rise all around the world causing extreme weather events. Think the recent heatwaves in Western Australia, the devastating floods in south-east Queensland and New South Wales in 2011 and 2022, and the bushfires that tore through New South Wales in 2019/2020.

Climate change is a global problem. We all exist under the same atmosphere so no matter where in the world pollution is released, it all contributes to the same problem.

What causes climate change?

Humans cause climate change. We are polluting the planet, mainly through burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas.

And the biggest polluters of all? Rich developed countries around the world.

How pollution drives climate change

The pollution caused by burning fossil fuels is referred to as greenhouse gas emissions, like carbon dioxide and methane.

When they’re released, these greenhouse gas emissions get trapped in the atmosphere.

Think of the atmosphere as the blankets of your bed, or perhaps the layers of a lasagne. The layered structure of the atmosphere is crucial in shielding us from the Sun’s heat, while also keeping our planet from freezing. When the Sun’s energy reaches the Earth’s atmosphere, some of it is reflected back to space and some is absorbed and re-radiated by greenhouse gases. This is called the greenhouse effect and is a natural and necessary process to keep Earth’s temperature at a level that allows life to exist.

However, through burning fossil fuels and other activities, humans are increasing the level of greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere, which traps extra heat and leads to global heating and climate change. This is the ‘increased greenhouse effect’.

Yallourn Coal Fired Power Plant in Victoria, Australia  Notes

Yallourn Coal Fired Power Plant in Victoria, Australia

How deforestation drives climate change

Alongside burning fossil fuels, deforestation is another cause of climate change.

Trees play a crucial role in carbon storage and sequestration, meaning they take carbon dioxide out of the air and store it in their branches, trunks, leaves, roots and surrounding soil. Less carbon dioxide in the air means less trapped in our atmosphere heating up the Earth.

By bulldozing trees and forests, humans are releasing stored carbon back into the atmosphere (mainly as C02) and destroying a key tool in the fight against climate change, not to mention critical habitat for threatened and endangered species.

Deforestation in Tasmania, Australia

Deforestation in Tasmania, Australia

What's the solution to climate change?

We think it’s simple.

  • Say no to more coal and gas
  • Say yes to renewable energy that benefits nature
  • Protect and restore nature, including stopping deforestation
  • Take direction from indigenous peoples who have been caretakers of the land for hundreds of thousands of years.

But, getting governments and big businesses around the world to act is more complicated.

That’s why we are part of a global movement demanding change and being a voice for nature and climate.

Do you want to help make an impact?


Australian Conservation Foundation